Where Did Hell Go?

Hell isn’t trending nowadays. Other than the offhand reference, “What the hell,” the dismissive idiom, “Go to hell,” the weather observation, "It's hotter than hell," or the flip comment, “I’m bored as hell,” we don’t hear much anymore about the topic of eternal damnation. It’s difficult to find anyone who wants to talk about hell because we think that most of us are pretty good overall. After all, nice people aren’t actually going to end up in some hard-to-believe-it’s-really-true everlasting lake of fire, right?

Kids say the darndest things.

A few years ago, I was teaching a second grade Sunday school class, and we were discussing the passage where Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus in the middle of the night. I explained to the students how the Pharisees heaped unbearable laws upon the people that were not given by God. After sharing with the children that God’s law guides Christians in daily living, I asked them, "What does the law tell unbelievers?" One boy raised his hand and declared, "that they're going to hell!"

The boy's honesty and candor surprised me at first, and his response also made me wonder: why does a young child accept something that is so difficult for many adults to reconcile in their minds? It was refreshing to hear someone—even if it was a young child—speak about hell without being embarrassed by it.

If I close my eyes, maybe it’s not really there.

The Bible clearly teaches about God's wrath and the reality of hell. Jesus didn't seem to have a problem with discussing these topics, warning people about hell on numerous occasions during his earthly ministry. With so much focus today on how Jesus will make our lives better here on earth, it doesn’t seem like our eternal state—much less God’s glory—is of much concern to some Christians anymore.

In his book Heaven (Tyndale House, August 2008), author Randy Alcorn cites a survey that concludes: “for every American who believes he’s going to hell, there are 120 who believe they are going to heaven” (p. 23). Alcorn contrasts this result with Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:13–14:

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”

The math just doesn’t add up. In this passage, Jesus is clearly indicating that there will be more people in hell than in heaven. Yet, I can’t remember ever going to a funeral or memorial service where people thought the deceased person was now in hell—not ever. Why do so many people, even those who claim to be Christians, refuse to accept the reality of hell when the Bible teaches it?

OpenBible.com lists 100 passages on hell, including the following from the book of Revelation:

And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Rev. 20:15)

It seems odd that such a prominent topic in the Bible is so infrequently discussed in churches today. The sad fact is that many pastors are hesitant to talk about the doctrine of hell anymore because they know people don’t really want to hear about it. More and more, churchgoers are seeking community, ways to improve their lives and help others, and support through difficult times—and these are all good things. It’s easy to understand why church leaders wouldn’t want to scare off people by bringing hell into the conversation. Talking about eternal damnation with seekers who are interested in how Christianity can make their lives better just doesn’t seem like a good idea.

We think only really bad people should go to hell.

The truth is that we don’t like the doctrine of hell. It doesn’t seem fair to us that God would send nice people to hell for eternity just because they made a few mistakes. After all, “Who doesn’t mess up here and there?” “Why does God have to be so harsh?” “Doesn’t he see my heart and know how hard I am trying?”

The problem is that we don’t get it. We don’t get how holy God is, and we don’t get how sinful we are. Isaiah got it when he saw a vision of the Lord in his glory. He cried out,

And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isa. 6:5)

Isaiah saw his own sinfulness. He saw his total inadequacy to stand before God. He understood that he needed to be cleansed so he would not be destroyed by God’s utter goodness and purity.

We find another such example in the Gospel of Luke. When Peter witnessed the miracle of the great catch of fish, "he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord’” (Luke 5:8).

And when we get it—when we realize that there is nothing about us that is untouched by our depraved nature and how impossible it is for us to stand before God on our own merits—this is when we run to the foot of the cross and cling to Christ, our only hope.

Some Christians think it is best to put off discussing this difficult topic with unbelievers. If only we can first get people to experience Christ’s love in one-on-one relationships and then in a church community that cares for and supports them, we can teach them about the more difficult Christian topics of judgment, wrath, and hell at a later time. But when is the right time? If we pass off Christianity as the best way to happiness now, what if people find an alternative way they like better for improving the quality of their lives and healing their brokenness? What if they never take the reality of hell seriously because the Christians they know don’t seem to take it seriously?

Eternity lasts a long time.

The issue is not whether or how God’s love can make our lives more fulfilled. The issue is that our sin offends God, separates us from him, and places us under his judgment. Avoiding the subject of God’s wrath or softening its severity does not make it go away. In fact, the stakes here could not be higher: if the Bible is true, those who are not trusting in Christ alone as their savior are not going to heaven—no matter how much they think they are. If we really care about the people God brings into our lives, we should be prepared to lovingly explain the Bible’s teaching on hell as God gives us the opportunity. We do non-Christians no favors by acting as though the doctrine doesn’t exist.

For the sake of those we are trying to help, we have to be honest with ourselves about exactly what we’re attempting to achieve when we try to make the gospel more appealing. How we present the gospel certainly matters. The apostle Paul sets a strong example for us regarding always being as relational as possible (1 Cor. 9:19–23). He also tells us to be winsome (Col. 4:6). Still, we must consider that some well-meaning attempts to smooth over the parts of the Bible that make us uncomfortable contain, at their root, a sense of shame regarding the difficult truths of the gospel.

I’m not advocating a return to fire-and-brimstone sermons or standing on street corners with threatening signs about hell and damnation. I am pleading the case that one of the most loving things we can ever do is to help people understand that they cannot create their own reality of the afterlife in their minds. Thinking something is true doesn’t make it so. People need the truth about God, themselves, and what is going to happen after they die. In short, they need the gospel.

Out of the mouth of babes he has prepared praise.

On another Sunday at church, I asked the children in my class, “What did Jesus do for us that we couldn’t do for ourselves?” A little boy named Oliver raised his hand quickly and answered with confidence: “He was perfect!”[1] Such glorious truth in those three words. Jesus, the perfect atoning sacrifice for our sins and the perfectly obedient Son of Israel, fulfilled all the law’s demands on behalf of everyone who trusts in him alone for salvation. Because of God’s unfathomable love in Christ, sinners who deserve hell are now at peace with God through the perfect completed work of their Lord Jesus Christ, growing together with each other in grace and knowledge of him as they await a glorious eternity in his presence. Well spoken, Oliver, well spoken, indeed.

[1.] Oliver’s response reminds me of the children who praised Jesus as he entered the temple and Jesus’ response: “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?” (Matt 21:16).

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Le Ann Trees

Le Ann is a writer, editor, speaker, wife, and mom who enjoys the Southern California lifestyle, including flip-flops, the beach, riding electric bicycles along the 101, and an occasional salted caramel Americano from Lofty Coffee in Solana Beach. She is exceedingly grateful for both the loving kindness of many people and the sound Christian doctrine that helped her to keep on living after her son died in a skiing accident in 2006. She holds a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Westminster Seminary California. Le Ann is managing editor of Beautiful Christian Life.

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